Reviewed by Michael Rerick
Labeled a work of fiction/poetry/essay, Jenny Boully’s [one love affair]* speaks to the experiences of love, love lost, and memory. Boully navigates these themes, respective to genre classification, using fragmented linearity, lyric repetition, and end and footnotes. Yet the genres are only a shell containing the complex layering and craft within the text of the book.
Initially, [one love affair]* opens with a lucid chaos of syntax and repetition:
She remembers the story he told her, about taking a walk with his former lover during one of the very first days of spring, a spring which soured then ripened then soured then ripened before beginning again, a spring which kept swelling out of winter in a way that Chaucer’s spring would never do. During this walk, which her present lover took with his former lover, her present lover reached up into a tree and broke off a flowering branch, of which he did not know the name, but which the former lover accepted as the grandest of all romantic gestures. (3)
Reminiscent of Beckett’s Not I, as well as Gertrude Stein’s poetry and prose, Boully’s heavy repetition can be understood through the lens of Marjorie Perloff (via a reading of Stein): “Verbal and phrasal repetition … is neither ornamental nor … a form of intensification. Rather, repetition generates meaning” (152), “meanings [that] are multiple” (153). In the passage from [one love affair]* above, repetition leads to a confusion of time placement, which in turn puts the reader in a position to experience all forms of the “affair” in a condensed time frame. Also, repetition emphasizes the cyclical nature of love affairs with the repetition of spring “soured then ripened then soured then ripened before beginning again.”
If repetition is a way of meaning making, it is also a method of memorization, or memory making. As the asterisk tacked to the title of the book explains:
*A million wallowing anemones, a thousand eyes peeping through, a thousand spies shivering, unnamable endless flowerings, countless empty bottles, twelve flowers, eleven trees, eight fruits, four vegetables, four peppers, two enemas, two kidnappings, one accident, one suicide, one soothsayer, one drowning, one nightclub called Juicy.
This list is shorthand, a summation for what unfolds throughout the book. Treating the title as summation, the “one” of the “one love affair” can act almost as the singular determiner “a,” which implies the personal, and can also act as memory, a book, a compilation, and become the plural/singular for the general, or society. In essence, Boully has not only written the speaker’s one love affair, she has written our collective love affair. The collective asterisked referent of the title lists large numbers to singular things; yet, all “anemones,” “peppers,” and the “drowning” are equal through the very act of enumeration. It takes the text, the book, to attach meaning. Hence, the transference of one’s love affair through the act of reading returns the love affair to us, and here a collective memory emerges. For instance, each section of the book, “[one love affair],” “He wrote in Code,” and “There Is Scarcely More Than There Is,” is presented from different points of view, employing the third person singular “she” in the first section, the first person singular “I” in the second, and the pronouns “we,” “she,” “he,” and “I” in the last section. The effect is a speaker that roves through this love affair in any way but “one,” or a singular way. This multiplicity of perspective butts against repetition and how repetition works as memory.
Memory and repetition not only function as a reexamination of the past, but the present, as well. Repetition, as the book progresses, becomes less and less pronounced (though, certainly doesn’t disappear), as though examination and reexamination of the past has dulled memory. The decrease in repetition draws the speaker to the present, though the past haunts and saturates the present and shifts the speaker constantly to the past while in the present, blending the two. Like repetition, then, the speaker’s love affairs are cyclical, unending. And the speaker concludes, as the past and present haunt each other, there is no happy ending:
After all, I don’t really love you; I love what I dreamt of you. The missing journal will show itself again. The joke will be that it will reveal, will explain nothing; the joke will be that it was always and continued to remain empty. (62)
That the book ends with the conclusion that love is empty, and deals with “love” and an “affair” throughout, points towards what might be considered a play of pathos.
Despite the sentimental and pathos-ridden themes of love and love lost, Boully renders something experiential and livable, more ambivalent than what the book’s themes imply. This is evident with a quick look at the title. The words “love” and “affair,” when put in close proximity, are loaded with connotations of infidelity, passion, or some passing and sultry encounter. Or, the two words could be used as one would to describe a “love affair” with an inanimate object: a lake or flower, for example. So, [one love affair]* has embedded in it layering that leads to multiple readings, not simply a surface for pathos to play out on. What also saves the reader from pathos is the concise craft of repetition, a mix of pastoral and rural images, syntax constantly shape-shifting, lyric semi-linearity, assertion and doubt, history, and a display of the desire to understand pain. As this list implies, there is much, very much, this book has packed into it, layer after layer.
As the repetition of words and ideas reverberate throughout [one love affair]*, much could be said of how it affects the reader, in what ways empathy is created from despair and loss. As complex as the book is, there is a looseness that allows for an enjoyable read. One can take [one love affair]* as both an academic project, or for a summer read at the park. And both would bear fruit.
Boully, Jenny. [one love affair]*. Brooklyn, NY: Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2006.
Perloff, Marjorie. Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodern Lyric. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1990.
JENNY BOULLY is the author of The Body (Slope Editions, 2002). Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2002, Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present, and The Next American Essay and has appeared in Boston Review, Seneca Review, Tarpaulin Sky, and Conjunctions. Her Book of Beginnings and Endings is forthcoming from Sarabande. Born in Thailand and reared in Texas, she has studied at Hollins University and the University of Notre Dame and is pursuing a Ph.D. at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She divides her time between Brooklyn and a small town in Texas.
MICHAEL RERICK will begin PhD study at the University of Cincinnati in Fall 2006. Hopefully this means reading, eventually, Beowulf in the original. His poetry appears or is forthcoming in Bathhouse, Caketrain, Court Green, Cue, Diagram, Fence, Nidus, Shampoo, Tarpaulin Sky, Word For/Word and Words on Walls.